I was 16 years old when my father died from cancer. Getting through the experience was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life and looking back, I'm amazed at not only my own resilience, but also of the resilience of my entire family. I know first hand what it is like to experience loss and would like to provide some suggestions on what helped me over the years.
When my father became ill, I was extremely fortunate to have a good friend who unfortunately, had just lost her own mother. She provided me with the single best piece of advice of which I am eternally grateful. She told me to spend as much time with him as possible and to say everything I wanted to say because once he's gone, regret over what I should have said or done would be unbearable. Because of my friend's advice, that is what I did and I cherish the last weeks with my father more than any others.
However, not everyone has the opportunity to do this as death can sometimes come on too quickly and without warning. All we can do is appreciate the time we did have together, rather than focus on what we missed. That being easier said than done, if you find yourself dwelling on what you wish you would have done or said, immediately catch yourself and turn your focus to the positive times you had with the loved one. Pull out old pictures or notes to remind yourself. Start a journal of appreciation that is for the sole purpose of expressing gratitude for the good times. If good times are hard to recall, then write about the good things you learned from the relationship or from the death.
Something else that has been helpful for me over the years is to always take time to reflect on my father's life and our relationship. Sometimes this occurs without warning when I'm reminded of him for some reason. Other times, I plan it and take time out to reflect, like today, the anniversary of his death 22 years ago. During these reflective times, I like to look at old pictures of him or notes he snuck into my lunch bag. This was a difficult thing to do during the first few years after his death; however, it is now something that makes me smile.
Take time to connect with something your loved one enjoyed, whether it was a close friend or a hobby. My father loved being outdoors engaged in activities like skiing, fishing, and photography. He was also a wonderful writer and practical jokester. In my family, each one of us has identified with one of his passions and maintained it on a personal level. One sister continues to write, another is an avid skier, and another is a talented photographer. My mom has held onto his fishing rods. I feel most connected to my father through my sense of humor. Regardless of how we have remained connected to him, doing so provides peace and makes me feel that he is still a part of my life.
Talk to those who knew and loved your loved one. Human beings are complex and each person in your loved one's life had a different relationship with and perception of the person. Connecting with others allows us to see and appreciate the other parts of the person that we may never have known. My father was my parent so I only knew him in a certain way, but when I spoke with his friends and colleagues in the years after his death, I was able to learn more about him. It was also nice to reminisce with those who knew him. As an adult, I now appreciate the complexity of who he was as a person and am constantly trying to better understand him, as well as learn from his mistakes and his successes.
Grief is strongest when it is fresh. It causes a hole inside us that actually physically hurts. The intensity and spectrum of emotions that you feel cannot be understood or appreciated until you have been through it. It does get easier with time, but before that occurs, it can feel as though it never will. Please reach out for help if you or someone you know is struggling with the loss of a loved one. Kids may show signs of anger, school refusal, have nightmares, or physical symptoms like frequent stomach or head aches. Adults may become withdrawn or isolate themselves. But you do not have to go through this alone. Individual therapy can be extremely helpful. Hospice organizations also offer support groups for those struggling with grief, which can be very beneficial. Contact me or a local Hospice organization for help in coping with your grief.
Melanie McNally, PsyD
I am a Licensed Clinical Psychologist providing therapy and comprehensive psychological testing in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. I have a Master's degree in Community Counseling and a Doctorate degree in Clinical Psychology.
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